Monday January 20, 2014 | 09:51 AM
Posted by Harold Johnson

The first recycling mill to accept residential plastics reportedly opened in Conshohocken, PA in 1972.

42 years later, the majority of the plastic that we put into recycling bins across the U.S. is still downcycled into lower-quality products, or just landfilled, incinerated, or dumped overseas.

Only a small fraction of all that plastic, every year, is turned back into plastic of the same quality.

According to the EPA, each year Americans generate 32,000,000 TONS of plastic waste.

Where is it going?


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Over the next few weeks I want to highlight different kinds of plastic that we Americans buy at the grocery store, then wash diligently, and then put out into our recycling bins. It’s very easy to see these symbols...

...and to believe in the triangle. To believe that a soda bottle or laundry jug or yogurt tub is turning back into a new soda bottle, laundry jug, or yogurt tub. When the reality is usually different.

The plastics industry argues that even downcycling is a good thing, because those lower-quality products don’t have to be made from virgin plastic themselves. However, many of those lower-quality products are only economically possible because of recycling. Things like plastic lumber barely existed until 10-15 years ago. "Plastic mulch," though available since the 1950s, has exploded in recent years. This -- along with piping, fiber, film -- is what most of our grocery-store plastics are turned into when recycled. The feedstock largely now comes from: us -- end consumers. Plastic carpets, plastic plant pots, plastic clothing, plastic sewers, plastic-sided houses with plastic decks. From our recycling.

So what if plastic recycling, rather than reducing our plastic use, has actually increased it?

Worse, many of the new uses we give to recycled plastics are just bad ideas. In the 1970s Florida thought it was doing a great thing by creating artificial reefs out of used tires. That project ended in an environmental disaster.

Modern “plastic mulch” has been shown to increase surface runoff, sending pesticides into waterways. Plastic lumber still needs to be cut, sawn, drilled -- and all of those shavings, being plastic, will last forever. (And ruined plastic lumber, when disasters like Sandy hit, will of course also persist in the environment forever.) Polyester fibers are now showing up in ocean samples all across the world

The idea of recycling comes from a good place. But if we don’t know what that recycled material is turning into -- who’s buying it, who’s using it, how are they using it -- then we should find out. Otherwise, what we’re doing may be creating a world far different from the one we thought we were creating.

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About the Author

Visiting a Maine beach in March 2010, Harold Johnson was shocked by the ocean-borne debris left by recent storms. He grabbed a garbage bag and a camera, and hasn’t looked back.

Since then he has spent most of his free time studying marine pollution, coastal ecosystems, and the mysteries and science of ocean and shore.

Copyeditor and writer by trade, historian and archaeologist at heart, Johnson’s philosophy is simple: Dig below the surface, travel the currents, make the connections, learn. Then share what you learn. He lives in Saco with his wife and young daughter. Follow on Twitter @FlotsamDiaries.

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